Despite millions of dollars paid out by a federal deadline of Sept. 30, thousands of Oregonians continue to await emergency rental assistance as their applications slip past state and local grace periods intended to avert evictions.
The backlog remains greatest in the three Portland metro area counties, where 42.1% of completed applications have been paid through Oct. 18, compared with 54.5% statewide.
Still, the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services and 18 community action agencies paid out a total of $133 million by a Sept. 30 deadline set by the U.S. Treasury for states to commit at least 65% of their initial shares of rental assistance. Oregon's initial share was $204 million, and Oregon is in line for more money that will be reallocated from other states failing to spend their full amounts.
According to the state agency's dashboard, 20,968 of 38,474 completed applications for rent and utility assistance have been "paid and obligated" statewide as of Oct. 18 — the figure includes payments approved by agencies but not yet redeemed by landlords — for a total of $165.6 million. Requests total $300.8 million.
Director Margaret Salazar said the state agency and others will need that extra federal money both for the backlog and a continuing flow of 1,000 to 2,000 new applications each week. She said more than a quarter of Oregon renters are considered "severely rent burdened," which under federal definition means they pay 50% or more of their income for rent.
"We continue to feel the weight of the unprecedented need for rental assistance," Salazar told members of the Legislature's housing committees. "Every single person who has applied is counting on us and community action agencies to process applications so they can remain safely and affordably housed."
She said no application should be older than 60 days — 90 days in Multnomah County, which has a longer grace period — by mid- to late December.
Oregon ranked eighth nationally for the share of rental assistance money committed by the deadline of Sept. 30, which also is the end of the federal budget year. Except for Connecticut and Washington, D.C., the other states ahead of Oregon have far larger populations, starting with New York.
Landlords could proceed with evictions, but they probably would forego any chance of collecting any rental assistance from agencies, which pay landlords directly.
Longer grace period?
The committees' Democratic leaders, Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene and Sen. Kayse Jama of Portland, called on Gov. Kate Brown to extend those grace periods by executive order.
"While we have sufficient resources, there shouldn't be anyone evicted for inability to pay," Fahey said near the close of the informational meeting Oct. 4.
Housing advocates told lawmakers their best estimates were that 7,700 applications for emergency rental assistance were past the 60-day grace period allowed under 2021 legislation (Senate Bill 278), and 4,210 more applications were past the 90-day period set by Multnomah County. That total could result in 12,000 potential evictions. Some estimates peg the number even higher, given the number of pending applications that are complete.
The figures do not take into account recent actions by Washington County commissioners and the Beaverton City Council to extend grace periods to 90 days, similar to Multnomah County. Washington County's extension applies only to unincorporated areas outside cities. They also exclude incomplete applications.
Becky Straus, a staff attorney for the Oregon Law Center, said 1,299 eviction cases were filed between July 1 and Sept. 30, after the end of a six-month eviction moratorium that lawmakers passed on Dec. 21. That total compares with around 200 between April 1 and June 30.
Brown issued an executive order for an evictions moratorium starting April 1, 2020. The Legislature wrote that into law in a June 2020 special session, and extended it for six more months in a Dec. 21 special session. During its 2021 session, in addition to setting a 60-day grace period for tenants who show proof they have applied for emergency rental assistance, lawmakers approve a separate bill to bar evictions for past-due rent until Feb. 28, 2022. But that applies only to past-due rents from April 2020 through June 30 of this year.
Neither bill forgives any past-due rents.
"If we fail, all of our work to protect housing stability during the COVID pandemic will have been for naught," Sybil Hebb, a staff attorney for the Oregon Law Center, said.
"Eviction, with millions of dollars available for emergency rental assistance on our watch, is preventable. A moratorium would extend stability. ... It would ensure that tenants have a roof over their heads while landlords get paid."
Unlike foreclosures, which lawmakers gave Brown the authority to extend a moratorium through Dec. 31. it is unclear whether she can extend the grace period for evictions by executive order — although she did so at the outset of the pandemic in spring 2020. It is also unclear whether lawmakers themselves would meet in another special session to take action.
The most recent special session ended Sept. 27 in partisan acrimony over congressional and legislative redistricting plans. Lawmakers will be in Salem for committee meetings Nov. 15-18 and Jan. 11-13. Their 2022 session starts Feb. 1and is limited to 35 days.
The Housing and Community Services Department has added staff, hired an outside contractor (Public Partnerships LLC) and relied on Oregon's network of 18 community action agencies to gear up for payments they have not had to make before.
On Sept. 16, they had paid out just under $48 million. By a federal deadline of Sept. 30, however, the total topped $133 million, which Scott Cooper, president of the Community Action Partnership of Oregon, said was nothing short of a miracle.
"We have all heard the concern about the possibility of an eviction tsunami in the wings," said Cooper, who also is executive director of NeighborImpact, the community action agency for Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. "Obviously, that is the last thing a state plagued by lack of affordable housing and homeless crisis needs. That being said, there is no current surge happening; there is only a fear for what might happen."
Cooper said aside from the Portland metro area, community action agencies have been able to manage applications and even improve on the initial flow of money from state-funded rental assistance that lawmakers approved Dec. 21. The Legislature created a separate state fund of $150 million when it was unclear whether there would be federal assistance. Congress then approved some money after Christmas 2020 and more money in the pandemic recovery plan that President Joe Biden signed on March 11.
"I'm unclear as to whether a statewide solution is needed to fix what is a local problem," said Cooper, who also spent eight years as the elected chief executive (judge) for Crook County government. "I also realize that there are competing interests between landlord groups and tenants' rights groups and there are political considerations and geographic considerations. It's not my job to balance all those: It's yours."